OPINION: Scholz is already out of step with Germany – it’s time for a change of course

Olaf Scholz has seen his popularity ratings plummet in Germany amid the Ukraine crisis. After a promising start, the Chancellor has retreated into Merkel-era habits that no longer match the country he is leading, writes Brian Melican.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz
Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) at an April cabinet meeting in Berlin. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AFP/POOL | John Macdougall

Contrary to what many commentators are saying, what’s most surprising about Olaf Scholz’ precipitous fall in popularity is not how quickly it has happened – but rather how slowly.

Both among German voters and our allies abroad, Scholz had, until very recently, been given the benefit of the doubt to a very generous extent. After all, it would be simply unrealistic to expect him to magic away in six months Germany’s sixteen years of accumulated backlogs: a stalled green energy transition, the chronic unattractiveness of public service jobs, potentially crippling overdependence on strategic rivals Russia and China…

No one expected any of this to get solved overnight, and at least it looked like Scholz and his coalition were making a good start. So there was a huge amount of goodwill.

In what seems like an eternity ago, back in early February when the Ukraine war was still a “Ukraine crisis”, Joe Biden welcomed Olaf Scholz on his first official visit to the White House and, despite the fact our Chancellor refused to make clear that Nord Stream 2 would be cancelled if Russia invaded Ukraine, called Germany a “reliable partner” and did his best to keep his frustration in check.

It was sensible, grown-up politics: instead of trying to strongman Scholz with a public shaming, Biden worked behind closed doors to get him on side. Most of Germany’s allies, despite increasing exasperation with our shilly-shallying, did likewise.

‘Man of the hour’

This approach paid off: in his Zeitenwende speech in early March, Scholz appeared very much the man of hour, cementing the impression I and many others have of him as someone who, while not wholly devoid of dogmatism, is nonetheless willing to change positions in the face of good arguments. Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine led him to reassess his stance to date, find it wanting, and correct it accordingly.

His honesty and solemn undertaking were rewarded with plaudits from our allies – and with an unexpected bounce in popularity among voters who, it turns out, had also been doing some thinking and had overcome their long-held distaste for military matters.

READ ALSO: Zeitenwende: How war in Ukraine has sparked a historic shift in Germany

Yet it’s been downhill from there on in. Essentially, Scholz’ speech wrote a hefty cheque that his actions since have not cashed. In the far-reaching nature of the foreign and defence policy shift he announced, Scholz displayed the strong leadership which he prides himself on delivering, only to then lose the courage of his own convictions.

Instead of using the momentum his volte face gave him to grasp the bull by the horns, he shrank back from any immediate measures which might prove too radical: no heavy weapons for the Ukraine; no embargo on Russian gas; not even any further major speeches. Yes, Germany has changed its stance and yes, Germany is supplying Ukrainian forces with much-needed material. Yet the overall impression – not just among Ukrainians, but among our allies and even the general public – is that it is still too little, too late and that, as ever, Germany is reacting in a sluggishly over-bureaucratic manner. The result is widespread dissatisfaction with Scholz’ government and, naturally, with Scholz himself.

In Scholz’ inability to make good on his pledge, there are three factors at play. One of them is beyond his control; the other two are of his own making.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take before Germany turns off Russian gas?

Inherited problems

Firstly, Scholz is hamstrung by circumstances. Even those of us in favour of supplying heavy weapons to the Ukraine have to accept the damning assessment of every informed professional who has examined the Bundeswehr in recent years: our own forces are operating on a bare minimum. This severely limits what we can offer. And this inability to defend even ourselves, let alone our European allies, has been twenty years in the making. The same is true of Russian gas: while I argue for an immediate embargo, I do not deny that this would have serious effects on our economy and society – and that, here too, there is no magic wand that can be waved over two decades of criminally negligent energy policy.

Olaf Scholz and Angela Merkel

Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) hands flowers to former chancellor Angela Merkel as she leaves office. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Michael Kappeler

This is the situation we are now in. How we got here, however, throws an unflattering light on Scholz, who was, until he became Chancellor, Finance Minister in yet another Merkel administration which allowed defence budgets to remain below par, Bundeswehr procurement to go to pot, and our dependency on Russian gas to go from around 40 percent to 55 percent.

This is the second factor in Scholz’ current failure: although he has, commendably, identified past mistakes and promised a different approach, he is still proving unable to surmount his own habits and instincts. Even where other options would now be open, Scholz is still applying the methods of the Merkel years – delaying, delegating down to committees, and hoping problems solve themselves – in circumstances which he himself has publicly identified as radically different.

READ ALSO: ‘Too little, too late’: Scholz under fire for inaction on Ukraine

Here, the issue with the Marder IFVs is symptomatic: Rheinmetall has literally dozens of these armed people carriers sitting around which could be refurbished at relatively short notice, either to be sent directly to Ukrainian forces or cascaded down to the Bundeswehr to replace any supplied to Kyiv.

Scholz is sticking to the unconvincing line that Ukrainian soldiers couldn’t be trained to use them in time – in spite of the obvious fact that the country’s forces have already lasted longer than anyone thought they would and that the war is now clearly going to drag on. Zeitenwende politics this is not. I’m not alone in expecting proactive executive action here: Scholz has a problem when MPs in his own coalition generally well-disposed towards him such as Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman repeatedly take to the airwaves to denounce his “prevarication”.

No sign of a Zeitenwende

And that is the third factor at play here. Regardless of actions taken or not taken, in stylistic terms, Scholz is not living up to his own hype. This is what, in my view, is denting his popularity the most. No one is expecting miracles, but having come to power implicitly promising to explain and justify his policies more than his predecessor Angela Merkel – who preferred to preside, sphynx-like, over proceedings – Scholz has now, after a promisingly communicative start, retreated back into the Chancellery. His silence, both on the Ukraine and on other pressing issues (especially Covid policy) is leaving too much room for interpretation – and dissatisfaction.

German tanks at a military training ground in Saxony-Anhalt

German tanks at a military training ground in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

No doubt, Scholz is hoping to himself “do a Merkel”, keeping a low profile and becoming entrenched to the point where Germans cannot imagine life without him and so eventually come to adulate him. Times have changed, though – and as the Chancellor who coined the term Zeitenwende (“change in times” or “turning point”), nobody should be more aware of that than Olaf Scholz.

Germans are changing with the times, and now expect more than aloof Merkel-style management of our various national weaknesses: they want the sustained, systemic change Olaf Scholz said he stood for. And the change needs to start (or perhaps: start again) at the top with him. Scholz can no longer count on the benefit of the doubt.

READ ALSO: OPINION: Germany has been forced to learn the lessons from its post-war pacifism

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members


What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

Security experts are increasingly convinced that leaks in the Nord Stream pipelines are the result of sabotage. Could there be further attempts to damage infrastructure - and what would the consequences be for people in Germany?

What the Nord Stream pipeline leaks mean for people in Germany

What’s going on?

Earlier this week, Swedish and Danish authorities reported three unexplained leaks in the two Nord Stream gas pipelines running between Russia and Germany. It came after a dramatic drop-off in pressure had been registered in both Nord Stream 1 and Nord Stream 2 on Monday night, reducing the capacity of the pipelines to zero.

On Tuesday, the Danish military published videos showing huge circles of gas bubbling to surface of the Baltic Sea – in some cases, stretching up to a kilometre in diameter. 

Nord Stream pipeline leaks

A video released by the Danish authorities shows gas bubbling up in the Baltic Sea. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/Danish Defence Command | –

Then, on Thursday morning, the Swedish coast guard reported yet another pipeline leak, suggesting that the damage to the pipelines may be greater than previously imagined. 

“There are two leaks on Swedish territory and two on Danish territory,” a Swedish coast guard official told the AFP news agency on Thursday.

The leaks are located near the Danish island of Bornholm in the Swedish and Danish economic zones but in international waters.

What’s behind the leaks?

The discovery of the damage has caused widespread concern in the European Union that critical infrastructure is being targeted by hostile actors.

Though investigations are still ongoing, Danish authorities have reported explosions in the affected areas shortly before the leaks were discovered. 

Both EU authorities and the NATO defence alliance are assuming that the leaks – and explosions – are the result of deliberate sabotage.

“As far as I can tell, it is a very intelligent attack that could not have been perpetrated by a normal group of people,” EU Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said on Wednesday evenings, adding that there was a high risk that a state could be responsible. “We have suspicions, of course. But it is too early to judge that conclusively.”

READ ALSO: Who is behind the Nord Stream Baltic pipeline attack?

Military experts have been slightly less reserved in apportioning blame for the destruction, with several looking to Russia as the most likely perpetrator of the attacks. 

“Leaks in gas pipelines are extremely rare,” Norwegian naval officer and military expert Tor Ivar Strömmen told AFP. Both the Nord Stream pipelines are both new and highly robust, he said. 

“I see only one possible actor, and that is Russia,” Strömmen added.

Meanwhile, Michael Giss, a naval commander in the German Bundeswehr (army), pointed to the fact that Russia’s sham referendums in occupied eastern regions of Ukraine and the likely attacks on the Nord Stream pipelines occurred on the same day.

“We also know that there are drones in the Russian navy – or even small submarines – that could be used for such purposes,” Giss told Tagesschau. “I also don’t want to exclude the possibility that certain measures may have been taken in advance during the construction of the pipeline to trigger such an event.”

The motivation could be to unsettle an already nervous Europe and drive gas prices even higher, experts believe. 

Has this affected gas deliveries to Germany?

So far, gas deliveries haven’t been impacted by the damage to the pipeline – though the leaks have rendered both of the pipelines inoperable. 

The gas supply hasn’t been affected because neither of the Nord Stream pipelines are currently in service. At the start of September, Russia cut all gas deliveries to Germany via the Nord Stream pipeline in what is widely seen as retaliation for western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine.

In the case of the recently completed Nord Stream 2, the pipeline has never been in operation: Germany took the decision not to receive gas through the pipeline just days after Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Nevertheless, both pipelines contained gas at the time of the leaks: Nord Stream 1 is likely to have had residual gas from previous deliveries while Nord Stream 2 was likely filled after completion for testing purposes or as a way to place political pressure on Germany to put the pipeline in operation. 

READ ALSO: Germany says must brace for ‘unimaginable’ after gas leaks

Nord Stream 2 pipeline parts

Unused parts for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline in Mecklenburg Western-Pomerania. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Stefan Sauer

Has this impacted energy prices?

Prices for natural gas have risen significantly in the European energy markets this week. On Tuesday, shortly after the first leaks were discovered, gas prices shot up from €167 per megawatt hour to €182 per megawatt hour.

By Wednesday, TTF futures contracts for Dutch natural gas – which represent trends in the EU market as a whole – had gone up to €212 per megawatt hour for deliveries in October and to €234 per megawatt hour for deliveries in January. This marks an increase of 14 percent and 11 percent respectively.

However, gas prices still aren’t anywhere near their previous peak in August, when TTF contracts soared to €346 per megawatt hour. Experts also believe that the latest hikes aren’t likely to last.

That’s partly because most European countries have succeeded in filling up their gas reserves in preparation for winter.

In Germany, which has the largest gas storage capacity in Europe, the gas storage facilities were around 91.5 percent full on September 27th. The government hopes to fill the facilities to at least 95 percent of capacity by November 1st. 

To relieve citizens and businesses, the government is also working to introduce a gas price cap in the coming weeks. That would likely see households pay a capped rate for a certain amount of energy per year, with anything above that subject to market rates. 

This would shield people from the worst of the price rises, even if Russia carries through on its latest threat to shut off gas deliveries via the Ukraine. 

German politicians are debating how this would be paid for. 

READ ALSO: German regional leaders call for energy price cap

Could there be more attacks in future?

The fact that a potential attack on critical infrastructure was able to slip under the radar is a major concern. It has raised fears that other parts of critical infrastructure, including electricity cables, other gas pipelines and internet cables could be subject to future sabotage attempts, which would have a huge impact on people’s lives. 

One particularly worrying target is the some 1000km of underwater cables that deliver electricity from Finland to Germany via the Baltic Sea, experts believe.

According to NATO security expert David van Weel, critical infrastructure like this has become a major target for cybercriminals and hostile states. Analysts have been warning for years that China and Russia are conducting spy operations to assess the undersea infrastructure of NATO countries.

Beyond gas, supplies of drinking water and electricity, internet connectivity could also be under threat. 

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg.

Electricity cables deliver power to a factory in Hamburg. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Daniel Bockwoldt

There are currently around 400 undersea cables with a length of around 1.3 million kilometres that connect countries across the globe. If these were sabotaged, the consequences for communication and the economy could be disastrous.

After the Nord Stream pipeline leaks, NATO forces – including the German Bundeswehr – are increasing their presence around this vital infrastructure with additional patrols.

The EU is also working on implementing measures to protect the drinking water, electricity and other vital infrastructure in its member states.

The initiative was started in summer and is set to be accelerated in light of the pipeline leaks.